Draft weekend this month will be a celebration for the Roulettes.
That’s when one of their own — 18-year-old left-winger Conner Roulette — will be called by an NHL team. It could happen on Friday, July 23 — he has on outside chance to be chosen in the first round — or early on Saturday, July 24, when NHL franchises make their selections in the second through seventh rounds of the virtual draft.
To mark the occasion, Conner’s dad Preston has arranged for a big tent to be erected at Swan Lake First Nation near Headingley where a small group of friends and family, conforming to health restrictions of course, will watch proceedings on a big screen.
Conner’s older brother, Shane, has a specific view of how the drama should unfold.
“He’s gonna fit in very well with say Nashville — they’re going to be rebuilding,” said Shane Roulette earlier this week. “And Pittsburgh, that’s his team… They’re going to enter a rebuild here soon, too… That’s been (Conner’s) team since he was four years old and to see him get drafted to Pittsburgh, which is actually one of the teams most interested right now, that would definitely make me very emotional just because I grew up watching him play mini-sticks pretending to be (Sidney) Crosby.”
While he’s dreamt for years of reaching the big time, Conner has also been working diligently to achieve his goal.
After scoring six goals and 12 points in 12 games during an abbreviated sophomore season with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, he’s been training in Delta, B.C., with a on-ice contingent that also includes NHLers Bowen Byram, Ty Smith and Milan Lucic and 2020 first-round draft pick Seth Jarvis.
“We’ve been more focused on the routine and sticking to that kind of pro schedule,” said Conner by telephone last week. “I’m trying to become a pro and I want to live like one. so you know it’s been pretty busy. Just with all the training, taking time just to get out here in Vancouver and train with the guys here… I’ve really been enjoying it a lot.”
While he’s been refining his sleep, nutrition and workout habits on the West Coast, Roulette said he’s been pleased with how his season ended in early May — as a member of Canada’s gold-medal winners at the U18 worlds in Texas. On a talent-laden squad, Roulette drew mostly fourth-line minutes and penalty-killing duties.
It was a role he had little familiarity with but he thrived, scoring twice and adding three assists with a plus-5 rating in seven games.
“You’re on that world stage and (the scouts) get to see you from another point of view,” said Conner. “Being in Seattle, I was a reliable offensive guy. You had to switch roles with the U18s and be more of that penalty-killer, bottom-six player and you got to add that into your game.
“I think a lot of scouts see that you’re able to add another tool to your toolbox, I guess you could say. It kind of makes you more of that fully rounded, 200-foot player and I think having that in my game has really helped me.”
The 2020-21 WHL season, originally delayed for six months by the COVID-19 pandemic, was further disrupted during Seattle’s training camp in March when two members of the Thunderbirds were booted off the squad when, as the Seattle Times reported, the team’s lone Black player was allegedly called a racial slur and had a banana waved in front of him.
It was gut-wrenching stuff for Conner, whose dad Preston comes from the Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation and mom, Tannyce Cook, hails from Grand Rapids First Nation.
“It does hit close to home — it’s your team, it’s guys who are like your brothers,” said Conner. “When you have kind of adversity, it’s a little tough coming from the background I do have. It sucks to see that in the sport. You know, we look at the negatives and a lot of things come with it. But I always kind of look at the positives and how the team reacted and how quick things are handled…
“Our team handled it really well and the coaching staff and the players are able to bounce back and have a great season.”
He appreciated the team and league’s no-tolerance policy and willingness to act.
“Sometimes people get a little too comfortable and it’s hard to kind of keep that stuff out,” said Conner. “Some people find it as a joke, (some) people think it’s funny and I think every team I played on it was almost kind of a circumstance like, (where) maybe people get a little too comfortable around each other. Whether it’s black or Asian kid, right? … You do these little jokes just because… you’ve become good friends with them and they think it’s funny to bring it on.”
Preston Roulette said he endured racist treatment during his minor and junior hockey career in the 1980s and ’90s, but that similar attitudes have been less impactful on his sons.
“Not much for Connor because he has more of his mother’s complexion — like he’s very light,” said Preston, 47. “I think a lot of people sometimes don’t know that he’s First Nations… So (the instances of racism) were few and far between. He didn’t experience it every game or every team but in time, every now and then, he did.”
Conner is close to his brother and proud of his heritage.
“I’ve never been I’ve never been shy (about) my background and I’ve always been able to just talk about it with people,” he said. “Even if it’s just a little conversation.”
He has no trouble serving as a role model, especially when players such as Ethan Bear and Carey Price, highly visible NHLers with indigenous backgrounds, are willing to speak out.
Bear, one of Shane’s spring hockey teammates from several years back, was subjected to racist abuse after the Edmonton Oilers were swept by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs. Bear is a hero in Conner’s eyes.
“You look at Ethan Bear and how he handled that stuff when Edmonton was knocked out, you know, they’re just regular people in the league, they’re just humans and they really do a great job being those role models and to help us young kids to understand and to kind of fight through it,” said Conner.
Shane Roulette is convinced his brother’s perseverance will pay off.
“That’s definitely where his success comes from,” said Shane. “He wants to spend every day at the rink, he wants to be in a setting where he’s part of a team and training — all of us stuff that comes with being a hockey player at that level.”
Courtesy of Winnipeg Free Press